Reports of the death of the two party system are greatly exaggerated

Our friend and former colleague Noah Rothman has a column at Commentary Magazine this week titled In Praise of the Two Party System. In it, he responds to a piece at FiveThirtyEight which is yet another retelling of the long forecast end of the Republican Party. Since it’s a wonky topic which resides near and dear to my heart, I dove into it expecting to see a debate over the merits of having two parties versus either a one party system or a hodgepodge of special interest groups more typical of parliamentary governments. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

While definitely worth a read, this is more of an argument about whether or not the GOP is on the verge of collapse rather than what the American political landscape would look like in its wake. Noah invokes some of the familiar patter of the Left, referencing pundits who declare that the Republican Party is, “characterized by breathtaking whiteness … shackled to a base composed of rigid ideologues who could not abide even the slightest deviation from orthodoxy.” I agree with his retort which states that the success of Donald Trump effectively lets the air out of that argument. Like any political party or movement, a change in domestic or international events can turn a group or party on a dime and quickly realign priorities. This portion, however, was of particular interest.

It is, in fact, both “cultural grievance” and a directionless antipathy toward global economic shifts, driven by enhanced manufacturing productivity at home and cheap labor abroad, that serves as the glue holding the GOP’s voters together. The party is poised to rest its hopes on the idea that inveighing against these trends is all that they need to do to win a national election. If the GOP makes 2016 a referendum on modernity, it will likely lose. Republicans with a vested interest in that outcome will insist that a bad night for the party in November demonstrates that the findings of the 2012 “autopsy” were right. They might say that this is a party doomed to lose national elections for the foreseeable future until it can cobble together a new coalition.

I disagree with that pretty much in its entirety. Arguing for a government which prioritizes American prosperity ahead of serving as either policeman or benefactor to the rest of the planet is hardly an argument against modernity. I could go on in that vein at length but I am more interested in the question of why we have a two party system and, even more so, how it has remained so stable over such a long period. We arrived at that point fairly early in our history and even the names haven’t changed much in nearly two centuries. Yes, there have always been third, fourth and fifth parties galore, but they don’t represent any real threat to suddenly seize the White House or a majority in Congress. Why do some of the European parliamentary systems have so many political parties which never seem to congeal into two dominant beasts? Beats me. Why did the indigenous peoples of North and South America never invent the wheel or figure out how to smelt metal?

Still, as Noah correctly notes, most of those parliamentary systems fold naturally into coalitions of these smaller parties because it’s the only way to wrest majority control. Doesn’t that look something like one of our own major parties in a way? Their “caucuses” may go by different names and have their own primary voting systems, but in the end they operate essentially the same way ours do. It all comes down to liberalism versus conservatism in the end, no matter what labels you apply.

We don’t need to spend any time considering a one party system. Americans abhor the idea and rightly so. Even if the Democrats succeeded in almost completely destroying the GOP, a new party filling the same slot in the political ecosystem would arise almost immediately to replace it. One party, left unchallenged, would rapidly become even more corrupt than it is now and earn the anger of the voters. Even if things looked to be rosy, we’re easily bored and would want more options. No… a one party system would be doomed from the start in the United States. And that’s the real irony in this discussion if you think about it. The Democrats and the Republicans are constantly working to beat each other into the ground, but they also need each other. With nobody left to fight, we’d only fight amongst ourselves.